Credit Penguin for giving a chance to a writer who brings new energy to Canada's cult of the multicult. Kenya-born David N. Odhiambo's second novel tracks 16-year-old John "Leeds" Kipligat's quest for Olympic glory. Kipligat yearns to be a world-class runner and, in a lucky break, gets the chance to train with a charismatic coach.
But there are serious obstacles on the way to the podium. His best friend, Kulvinder, whose family fled Kenya with Kipligat's, also has track aspirations, and that puts stress on their relationship.
Kipligat has never recovered from the disappearance of his brother Koech, an athlete whose political principles got in the way. And racism, poverty and an empty love life have made him emotionally numb. He's turned into a cutter, his scarred arms testimony to his anguish.
Odhiambo tells the story against the backdrop of Vancouver's diversity. Lotus Land has never been depicted like this before, with all its vibrancy and the frustrations faced by immigrants. Kipligat's family goes through tenant hell while trying to come up with a money-making scheme.
And the characters are compelling. Kipligat's fellow athletes include Erika, who's hot for Kulvinder and aches for a conventional life, and ex-junkie Vivian, who could as easily wind up in a halfway house as in the winner's circle.
Most fascinating is Sam, Kipligat's now paunchy coach, who was himself a failure as a young athlete and is desperate to make sure his trainees don't suffer the same fate.
Odhiambo has a lucid, uncluttered style that speeds the story along. You don't have to be a sports fan to grasp Kipligat's personal pain and the agony that goes with this kind of training.
Odhiambo joins Penguin's Pure Fiction readings Wednesday (March 19). See readings, this page.
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Kipligat's Chance by David N. Odhiambo (Penguin), 274 pages. $24 paper. Rating: NNN